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Imaginary Olives MAG
It's a small country, they tell me, with rivers that swirl a cocktail of bitter cardamom and salty tears. I'm told the streets are lined with fading four-story buildings that brown with the passing of time, now measured in years since the war began. Every few hundred kilometers, tightly-packed olive trees coat the landscape, extending their open hands out to shriveled farmers. Olives that glisten like sunlight tap-dancing on water fall into the hands of the farmers, who toss them into hand-woven baskets. The olives are driven to desolate warehouses, where a British company will package them and ship them to London. There, they are sold to people, like my family, willing to pay extra for the familiar bold letters of the brand — Zaytoun from Palestine — and the seductive wrapper that gives us a much-needed reminder of the colors on Palestine's flag: red, black, white, and green.
Visiting my grandparents in Lebanon each year has been the closest I have come to seeing the country I'm told to call home. My grandmother, Teta, is Lebanese from both of her parents' sides. My grandfather, Seedo, is entirely Palestinian. Like most Palestinians of his generation, he's a nomad who has scrutinized the cities of the Arab world, from Benghazi to Baghdad. Seedo and Teta moved to Beirut many years ago. They figured that, if the opportunity arose, it would be easiest to pack up their things and move back to Palestine from Lebanon.
My grandparents live in a pre-war apartment just off of the busiest road in Beirut. When our cousins are over — which is on most days — it divides itself into loose precincts that lose their borders during meal times. The living room morphs into a bustling bazaar. On its dusty couches, aunts and uncles trade sugared gossip for laughs and surprised facial expressions. The kitchen, connected to the living room by a narrow hallway that clogs with teenagers eavesdropping on their parents, is the industrial quarter. Boxes of unopened desserts crowd the kitchen countertop at all times. I used to think that Teta wanted to be prepared for any number of our extended family to barge through the door and demand a platter of baklawa and tea. But as her siblings have passed away over the years, the amount of what's in her fridge hasn't changed. I now realize that her absurd preparation was nothing more than wishful thinking; it may also have been a gesture of goodwill to the elderly man who owned, but was struggling to pay rent for, the sweet shop down the road. The bedrooms make up the city center. Toddlers showcase colors, wrestling for recognition in their sketchbooks like street painters flaunting crude caricatures. Ear-splitting shrieks at the Playstation replace car horns, and baby cousins unfortunate enough to be in the line of Nerf gun fire look around furiously like disgruntled tourists.
There's never a shortage of food in my grandparents' apartment, but there are also rarely any leftovers. Seedo learned to embrace God in his younger years. Life hurled misfortunes at him that all but proved that God didn't exist, but he was too stubborn to take notice. His eyes yawn every time we scrape unfinished food off of our plates and into a dustbin, and his lips mouth what I presume to be a religious verse about the sanctity of food. Teta, on the other hand, was born into a wealthy Lebanese family. Her dad owned a construction company hired to rebuild much of the devastated country after the First World War. When she was eight years old, her father's debt yanked the silver spoon out of her mouth and hurled it far from her reach. Overnight, she was evicted from a plush mansion outside of central Beirut and thrown into a flat just off of the busiest road in the city. Her father died of a heart attack months later. To her, his cause of death has always been greed. Seedo's faith and Teta's learned frugality make finishing our dinner more than just a helpful reminder when we're with them.
Outside of the apartment, Westerners oscillate between street kiosks selling kebab skewers and French creperies. A narrow two-way street brimming with cars chases the ocean into the horizon. Screaming commuters pummel their car horns, but I've watched enough news lately to know they don't have jobs to be late for. Men wearing tailored suits walk aimlessly with grocery bags in both hands and mothers wearing knock-off designer clothes rush through crowds of tourists to fetch their kids from school.
Looking up, a war-torn city hugs the skyline. My sister and I used to see the city as one big playground. The jagged cobblestone streets, victims of a decades-long civil war, drew hopscotch configurations far too elaborate for London's plain infrastructure. Yellowing bullet holes decorated Seedo and Teta’s apartment building, haunting reminders of the dangers this playground once hosted. We were aware that adults didn't enjoy going to the playground as much as we did. We had to keep the excitement to ourselves when we passed a car with leaking tires and exhausted windows, a tall soldier with a thirsty gun, or a homeless child with gaping eyes — all perfect choices for our games of I Spy.
When I think of Beirut, a vivid collection of memories, tastes, smells, and views from my grandparents' apartment come to mind. The streets that cut through the city, from the port to the mountains, are even more familiar to me than the lonely streets of London, where I have lived since I was born. Beirut is much more to me than the city where my grandparents live.
In my French class two years ago, my teacher asked us to share a bit about ourselves with the rest of the class. What's your name? How old are you? Where are you from? "My name is Adnan. And, I, um, I'm 16 years old. I … I'm from Palestine," I told the class. I'm from Palestine. I've been trained to say those words my whole life: by Seedo, Teta, and myself when I've sweet-talked the boy in the mirror into believing that there is a country he can call home. Even still, that boy finds it ironic that he has never set foot on the land he lays claim to.
When I think of Palestine, I don't see the country my grandfather raised my father in, nor do I taste the Palestinian olives I buy from my local supermarket. Instead, I see war-torn cities that hug their skylines. I smell a peculiar but mouth-watering blend of spicy kebabs and sweet crepes.
After my French class revelation, I decided that I would start telling people I was from Lebanon. It made sense to me. The place I've been visiting since I was born had to make me feel more at home than the country I've been acquainted with through the distant memories of my grandfather. I told Seedo my master plan at the dinner table one night.
"I've never been to Palestine," I complained. "I don't feel as connected to it as I do to Beirut." My grandmother is rarely speechless, but this was one of those moments. I expected Seedo's eyes to sour with disappointment, but instead, he laughed pitifully, stood up, and took me to the living room where he sat me down on one of the four “gossip couches.”
"When I was a young boy in Jaffa,” he started, "my mother sent me to the market every weekend for vegetables. She gave me exactly enough money for a handful of carrots and three mils of change." He wrapped his broad arms around me and looked up as if a movie of his life was being projected onto the ceiling. I tilted my head upward just to be sure there was nothing there. "The man at the olive stall knew me," he continued. "Every week, I made sure to pass by him before he broke for lunch so he could give me a handful of his greenest olives to take home, free of charge."
Seedo kept his olives in the same glass bowl each weekend. He waited until later in the day to ration out the olives between his brothers, sisters, cousins, and any relatives who happened to be home for Saturday lunch. At first, he told me, each of them got half an olive.
"Have you ever tasted an olive, Adnan?" His question caught me off guard.
"Yes, I think I have." I was sure I had.
"No, I mean a real olive."
"What do you mean, a real olive?"
A real olive, he explained, has a taste so sweet that you'd feel guilty eating more than one. A real olive can't be eaten alone. Like a date, it tastes best when it's insulated by the warmth of a crowded family. According to Seedo, you know you're eating a real olive when you don't have to question where the olive came from.
A long pause followed his explanation. I wasn't sure what to say to him, so he took my silence as a no.
"Anyway, a few months later," he said, "I realized that each of us was now getting one full olive, not a half. By the end of the year, we were each getting a handful. Do you know why?" he asked me, his voice fading as if the question were rhetorical.
"Did the olive man start giving you more olives?" I asked him.
"No." Seedo looked around desperately to avoid my tempting innocence.
"Eventually,” he continued moments later, his shaky voice penetrating the silence that permeated the air, "I stopped buying olives when there was no one to bring them home to." He didn't need to tell me what came next. I knew, from years of hearing the stories that aged him, that he too was then forced to leave the country.
"My biggest fear, Adnan, is that you and your sister won't be able to taste olives in your lifetime." Seedo unlatched his fingers from my arms. His right index finger and thumb, spaced apart as if he were holding an olive between them, gravitated up toward his mouth. His lips made way for the imaginary olive, and his teeth reluctantly bit into it, stopping halfway when they reached the imaginary olive's imaginary seed. A long and insistent gulp followed. Down went the imaginary olive into his esophagus, now a figment of both of our imaginations.
"Try one," Seedo said, holding out his bare palm to me until I scratched at it. Unsure if he was joking, I tossed my own imaginary olive into the air. As my hand thrust upward, I could feel the air taking the rigid shape of an olive that drifted away from my skin. One. Two. Three. I caught the imaginary olive in my mouth and chewed it eagerly. Pausing for a second, I couldn't help but feel nauseous from the empty taste of the air I was about to swallow.
Looking back, I don't blame myself for seeking comfort in Beirut's familiar kebabs and upscale crepes. Seedo's imaginary olives don't — and will never — satisfy my hunger, but I can feel when they are in my hand. Their soft outer layers numb my fingers, and the crushing feeling of their weight preoccupies my naked palms. I see the imaginary olives too, sometimes. I see how they glisten like sunlight tap-dancing on water. Until I'm able to extend my hand out to the branch of a real olive tree, just a few hundred kilometers away from my grandparents' apartment in Beirut, I, and a few million others, will have to make do with imaginary olives.
Last August, the windows of my Seedo and Teta's apartment were shattered by an explosion near Beirut's port that deafened the city. When my grandparents first got the chance to go back to the apartment the morning after, my father and I FaceTimed them from London. Lingering high-pitched screams and sirens that relentlessly blared in the distance eventually faded into the garbled static of the FaceTime call. Seedo and Teta seemed to be too interested in sweeping the broken glass on the floor to notice, but in the corner of the screen, I could just make out an empty glass bowl on a window sill. I recognized the bowl. When I was younger, I would wonder why Seedo sat by it every Saturday morning, his eyes immersed in the world outside of the window. Teta and I learned not to disturb him on Saturday mornings after many failed attempts at asking him what he wanted for breakfast. What was outside of the window didn't matter, though. I now realize that the bowl being next to the only window in the apartment that faced south was no accident, and my guess is that it's the same bowl he used to keep his olives when he was a child.
Thin cavities riddled the rim of the bowl, but I was surprised to see the rest of it intact. Shards of glass from the nearest window had landed inside of it, piling on top of each other like leaves in autumn. What the phone screen didn't show, though, was what had happened to the imaginary olives I was sure were inside of it. I never got the chance to ask Seedo.
"As long as an olive is kept in its purest form," I picture him telling me, "no amount of shattered glass, fired bullets, or separated families can stop it from tasting like home."